Ending a wanted pregnancy can forever alter the meanings of iconic cultural imagery
Few things irritate me more than people griping about how much they hate Valentine’s Day. “It’s just a Hallmark holiday,” they whine, “Why can’t people say I love you every day instead of waiting for Valentine’s Day? I hate chocolates. I never have a date. Roses are a waste of money. It’s stupid.”
These petty complaints crop up every year. And I have to stuff my response, resist the temptation to stun the complainers out of their self-absorbed grousing about how tough it is for them to tolerate another Valentine’s Day. So I let them sulk about romance, or polish their tiresome hipster cred by objecting to what’s “mainstream” or “commercial.”
“So, you think you hate Valentine’s Day?” I don’t say. “You want to know what Cupid’s arrow makes me think of?” I never utter. “Let me tell you something about hearts and heartbreak,” I swallow back. “You have painful memories of not getting enough valentines in your mailbox? How about the memory of holding your dead baby?” I scream inside my head.
I stuff it all away because I don’t want to be that person, even though, deep down, I guess I am.
A friend’s “emo” girlfriend sent him black roses on February 13th, I guess to flaunt how “dark” and “anti-establishment” she imagined she was. What a luxury, I thought, to have so known so little tragedy in your life that you have to manufacture a gesture like that.
What I wouldn’t give to be able to casually mock Valentine’s Day, rather than have it, year after year, mocking my grief.
Since that devastating day when I faced my abortion at 20 weeks gestation—February 14, 2000—I’ve come to both dread and revere Valentine’s Day. In the weeks leading up to it, I scurry past the endless displays of “school Valentines” at the grocery store, my eyes averted and welling with tears. Anything decorated with hearts brings a lump to my throat, whether it’s a tray of frosted cookies, a pink sock monkey hugging a velour heart, or pair of boxer briefs.
My baby had Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. And Down syndrome. But this post isn’t about my reasons. It’s about a death anniversary that coincides with a holiday.
There are two images that crush me every time: the iconic heart with an arrow, and Cupid with his bow. These were taped to a wall in the hospital hallway on my way to get the KCL injection. Even then I knew then I’d never see them the same way again. Cupid’s arrow is the needle through my baby’s heart. And every cheerfully symmetrical Valentine’s heart is a stern reminder that my baby’s left ventricle was severely underdeveloped.
Every year when I’m confronted by Valentine’s images I think, Am I not over this yet? Why does this still bother me? What the hell is wrong with me? How can it still hurt so much? Goodness. This year, my rainbow baby is sporting the shadow of his first mustache and I’m still getting verklempt as I push my shopping cart past the obligatory display of Valentine-themed baby bibs and the red-foiled chocolate roses.
In all the years I’ve been involved in this grief community, I’ve recommended parents try to make peace with their anniversary date, to welcome it as an opportunity to honor their lost babies. And yet as I face down another anniversary, I’m not sure I’ve taken my own advice.
Of course I honor baby Leo on Valentine’s Day, and as a family we make a point of having a special dinner and being together. But it remains a hard day for me. I’m torn between the obligation I feel to give Valentines to my husband and children, and the torture of facing down the Valentine card and candy aisles. Some years I don’t do anything. Some years I overcompensate by getting them too much from the chocolate boutique. This year, like every year, how I’ll handle it (or not) is a decision I can’t bear to make until the last possible second. And no matter what decision I make, it feels wrong.
Maybe I need the pain every Valentine’s Day brings. That pain, that heartache, is my connection to baby Leo. We knew so little else. A few month of blissful ignorance, a few weeks of ever-worsening prenatal diagnoses, our last and worst day, and then he was gone. Forever.
But enough about us. I know I’m far from alone in sharing my termination anniversary with an annual holiday. There are so many days that get special attention in our culture, in stores or in the media. New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. I’m pretty sure that even those holidays that don’t get as much attention, All Souls Day, Presidents’ Day, Groundhog’s Day, Veteran’s Day, Flag Day, Sweetest Day, or Superbowl Sunday (wait, that probably does get as much attention), these days still add a measure of pain to those who share their anniversaries with them.
I want to extend my sympathy and support to everyone whose angel anniversary coincides with a holiday, major or minor. And that includes anyone whose anniversary is close to, rather than directly on, a holiday, because that’s probably just as hard.
When when you consider all of the special days throughout the year, that just might be most of us.